29 May, 2006
Benedict visits the former Nazi death camp Picture: Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI has made a plea as a "son of the German people" for reconciliation and world peace at the site of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. The visit to Auschwitz ended a four-day visit of the Pope in the footsteps of his predecessor, John Paul II. Alone, Benedict walked into the "Stammlager" beneath the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" gate to the Death Wall, where thousands of prisoners were executed. Facing the wall, with clasped hands, he made a deep bow and removed his skull cap. At the Birkenau camp, where the Nazis murdered over a million Jews and others in gas chambers and emptied their ashes into nearby ponds, Pope Benedict held back tears as he listened to Psalm 22, including the words "O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer." The pontiff of the Catholic Church spoke in Italian at a ceremony also attended by many Holocaust survivors. "In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence – a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: 'Why, Lord, did you remain silent?'" His only public prayer in German during the visit ended with the words, "Let those who are divided be reconciled." A rainbow broke through a leaden sky as Benedict, a aide holding an umbrella over his head, earlier paused before each of the 22 plaques at Auschwitz-Birkenau's Monument to the Victims of Fascism. The plaques commemorate people from various countries exterminated at the camp.
Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich sang the Kaddish while musicians played a Jewish lament. "They would stir our hearts profoundly if we remembered the victims not merely in general, but rather saw the faces of individual persons who ended up here in this abyss of terror," said the Pope in his speech. Benedict did not refer to any collective guilt by the German people, but instead focused on the Nazi rulers. He said he was "a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness." He also did not mention the controversy over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII, who some say did not do all in his power to prevent Jews from being deported to concentration camps. The Vatican rejects the accusation.
Rabbi Schudrich said that the most important part of Benedict's message had been "his physical presence at Auschwitz", but he added that some Jews had wished he would have gone further by directly addressing anti-Semitism. "It was a very powerful statement and the words that we heard were powerful, but I'm sure some felt a glaring omission on the question of anti-Semitism. Jews are very sensitive to that and we are used to hearing the words of John Paul II." The Pope did not mention his own personal experiences during the World War II, when he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth as a teenager against his will and then was drafted into the German army in the last months of the war.